The Name Game

Then David comforted his wife Bathsheba, and he went to her and made love to her. She gave birth to a son, and they named him Solomon. The Lord loved him  and because the Lord loved him, he sent word through Nathan the prophet to name him Jedidiah.  2 Samuel 12:24-25 NIV

They – I’ve got a great idea.  Let’s translate the Bible so that it speaks to our contemporary circumstances.  Let’s use idioms and expressions that readers today will find familiar, easy to grasp, in alignment with the way we think of things today.  Oh, we won’t change any of the really important stuff, like the major doctrines.  We’ll just modernize the small things.  You know, the things that don’t really matter much.  That way people will be much more comfortable reading the Bible.  They won’t have to work at trying to understand what it meant all those centuries ago.  Oh, wait a minute.  We don’t have to do this work.  It’s already been done in the NIV.  Thank God!  That will save us so much time.

That’s the whole idea behind fifty or so English translations.  Make it easier.  There’s not a lot of serious concern about the intricacies of the text.  Just get across the major ideas.  That’s enough.  And, of course, what we end up with is a big book of footnotes to doctrines, a compendium of proof-texts.  We lose all the flavor of the stories, the emotions of the characters, the dynamics of their lives.  We stop understanding them as people.  They are just minor role players in the great movie about God.

Roll the film!  GOD (the title), starring GOD (the actor—he gets top billing, of course) and introducing Adam, Abraham, Moses, David, Solomon, and a list of others whose names don’t really matter too much.  Co-starring (this comes right after the opening frame with the name God) “Jesus.”  But we all know that’s just GOD with a fictitious name.  Oh, yes, there has to be a female counterpart, so, (the next frame) and MARY.  Now we have all we need to know.  Somewhere in the post-production editing, we can throw in something about another invisible actor, THE Holy Spirit, but since “he” doesn’t really appear in person, he doesn’t get top billing like the real actor(s)—GOD-Jesus.

Okay, enough.  You get the idea.  Now let’s look at a very tiny piece of the Hebrew text and see why this Hollywood version of the Bible is not only naïve but dangerous.

In this verse in the NIV we are told that David and Bathsheba name their second child Solomon.  At least that’s what we think because in our contemporary world, both parents are involved in naming.  But this isn’t true in the ancient world, and, more importantly, it deliberately mistranslates the Hebrew.  That’s probably no surprise to you.  After all, you already know that many modern translations take considerable theological liberties with the actual text.  But here it seems so trivial.  Let’s see.

The actual text has a very unusual construction.  You see, it’s written “and he named”  ויקרא but it’s read “and she named” וַתִּקְרָא.  The written scroll tells us that David named Solomon, but the Jewish community reads it as though it said Bathsheba named Solomon.  You will notice that the Hebrew text for “and he names him” doesn’t even have the vowel pointing, just to make sure it isn’t read.  Why?

Before we try to answer that question, you can immediately see that the NIV can’t be correct on either count.  Either David names him or Bathsheba named him, but not both.  In fact, in 1 Chronicles 22:7-9, David explicitly says that God named Solomon.  No parental involvement at all.  This seems to be in alignment with the idea that God sent the prophet Nathan to David telling him that the child would be named by God.  But that’s another problem because the name Nathan provides is not Solomon.  It’s Yedidiah (we translate it with a “J” as Jedidiah).  More about this in a moment.

Now let’s look at this odd construction in 2 Samuel 12:24.  There are two things to consider.  Both involve the emotional context of naming this child.   Steven Weitzmann suggests that David does the naming (following the written Torah), but he then notes that there is a suspicious element in this name.  The letters of Solomon’s name (Shin-Lamed-Mem) can be read as “his replacement,”[1] suggesting Solomon is named because his brother died as punishment for David’s sin.  Imagine if this is true.  What does it say about the value of Solomon himself in the eyes of his father?  Is he nothing more than a substitute, a repayment?  What kind of relationship would you have with a father who named you for a child he lost as God’s punishment?  What would your name remind you of?  Perhaps Solomon’s birth story is nondescript because it isn’t really about Solomon at all.  Perhaps it is about David’s emotional disconnection from his living son.  Perhaps the absence of a birth context is more revealing than the presence.

Now consider the same emotional complex if it’s Bathsheba who names the child.  The same consonant reworking can express her joy (and relief) at having a second son.  Does this mean she sees the second as merely replacement, like David might?  I don’t think so because she wasn’t directly responsible for the death of the first child.  And here we have something quite unique in Hebrew.  The verse can be read as though she gives her second son two names, the second name being “God loved him.”  In other words, it is entirely possible to read this verse as “and she named him Shlomo and YHVH Ahov.”  But even if we read the phrase as a second name, we still don’t end up with the name that Nathan brought from God, although the idea of that name might be the same.   If Bathsheba chooses both names, she uses one name to expresses her relief—and perhaps his destiny—and the other to express her desire and her confidence.  Neither parent seems anxious to adopt the name given by God to His prophet.

In either reading, we discover the deeply emotional involvement of both father and mother with this second son.  Without this, the story is just another birth announcement in the local Canaanite newspaper.  Oh, my, one more reason why you can’t read the Bible in English.

Topical Index:  name, Solomon, Jedidiah, 2 Samuel 12:24

[1] The consonants can mean both well-being and recompense, that is, completing what was lost, from šillûm.  The construction of the name would be “his recompense.”

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Ric Gerig

“Oh, my, one more reason why you can’t read the Bible in English”

Praise YHVH we live in a time when we have so many tools at our fingertips to be able to do our own research and translating at our own dining room table or office desk! And that we have scholars such as you, Skip (also at our fingertips), to challenge us to do so! Thank you.

Mark Randall

Yup, agreed!

Praise YHVH we live in a time when we have so many tools at our fingertips…

That’s exactly why we CAN read it in english. We just need to read it along side those great tools. The HALOT has some really good information on the name “שְׁלֹמֹה” I wouldn’t have ever given this text much more attention had it not been pointed out, thanks, Skip!

Richard Bridgan

Scripture’s story is humanity’s story—and that story is considered in light of a community’s and an individual’s relation to YHVH. Whether people of God or people outside that delimited boundary, the stories are human, the events are human, and the emotional/spiritual aspects are relative to the human experience.

Thank you, Skip, for bringing into our understanding the recognition of these human conditions—as the context of the meaning and significance they convey. The experience of the biblical characters is also our experience. By them, may we be led to that goal, which is Christ, and that assured placement with those who are vindicated as God’s people!